Welcome to our NDPR Review Forum on R. Jay Wallace’s book The Moral Nexus (PUP 2019), recently reviewed in NDPR by Rahul Kumar. Below is a brief description of the book, an excerpt from the review, and an initial discussion from R. Jay Wallace. Please feel free to comment on any aspect of the book, the review, and the discussion below.

From the book blurb:

The Moral Nexus develops and defends a new interpretation of morality—namely, as a set of requirements that connect agents normatively to other persons in a nexus of moral relations. According to this relational interpretation, moral demands are directed to other individuals, who have claims that the agent comply with these demands. Interpersonal morality, so conceived, is the domain of what we owe to each other, insofar as we are each persons with equal moral standing.

From the NDPR Review: 

The idea that, as Christine Korsgaard once put it, “The subject matter of morality is not what we should bring about, but how we should relate to one another” is one that resonates with moral and political philosophers. R. Jay Wallace’s book brilliantly explores, with nuance and in detail, the reasons embedded in ordinary moral thought that undergird the appeal of a relational interpretation of moral reasoning, one that characterizes it as a matter of working out how we ought to regulate our conduct if we are to stand in a relation of moral equals to one another. It argues, in particular, for the merits of a distinctive, and contentious, version of such an interpretation that conceives of the whole of the morality of right and wrong — interpersonal morality — as a nexus of irreducibly relational requirements, or directed duties. These duties, or obligations, linking particular individuals to one another as duty-bearers and correlative claim holders, are owed by persons to one another simply in virtue of their standing as moral equals who, because they share a world, can affect one another through their actions and attitudes.


Contractualism, I take it, has commonsense on its side: we don’t generally think that all moral wrongs involve wronging someone. Contributing to the alleviation of global poverty and disease, for example, is morally required of those who are in a position to do so at little cost to themselves. It is also a requirement that seems as central to interpersonal morality as the obligation to keep one’s promises. But unlike a promissory obligation, it is considered an imperfect duty, one that allows discretion with respect to how you incorporate it into your life. It does not mandate either the form your contribution takes, nor to whom it ought to be directed. This discretion, together with the fact that, from the point of view of the duty-bearer, the duty is not associated with respecting the claims of individuals, suggest that it is not properly characterized as a directed obligation; failing to comply with it is wrong, but does not wrong anyone.

Wallace’s point, however, is that if we do not conceive of interpersonal morality as a nexus of directed duties and linked claims, we sacrifice being able to make good sense of the deliberative and interpersonal significance, as well as the cosmopolitan scope, of the requirements constitutive of it. He addresses this apparent dilemma in the final chapter, arguing that intuitive convictions concerning the substance of what morality requires, that do not initially look to be concerned with requirements owed to particular individuals, are either more amenable to a relational analysis than one might initially think, or are insufficiently secure to put much weight on. The discussion covers a lot of ground; its objective, however, is not to try and settle substantive issues, but to illustrate the fruitfulness of reasoning about them in relational terms.

We can, for example, think of the duty of the affluent to aid those in need as one that invests each of the potential beneficiaries with a claim to assistance held against each who is in a position to do so. The reasons that justify the duty concern the personal interests at stake, whose comparative importance render any principle permitting an affluent person to not offer aid (presumptively) unjustifiable to those in need of it. The claims in question are admittedly unusual, insofar as what a claimant is entitled to demand of a particular affluent agent, against whom she holds a claim, is not that she in particular be aided, but that the affluent agent contribute his fair share to a collective effort by the affluent to aid those in need of assistance (207). Flouting this obligation wrongs those in need of aid, communicating to them a denial, or disregard, of their equal reality as persons. Their resenting, and in other ways blaming, the derelict affluent is fully warranted.

This point, concerning the interpersonal significance of flouting the duty to contribute, is plausible and easy to overlook. That this aspect of it is brought into relief by Wallace’s account of its grounds helpfully illustrates how examining substantive moral questions in relational terms can be illuminating. On the other hand, holding those in need to be wronged by the affluent who do not contribute to their aid strikes me as implausible, and I am uncertain that doing so is forced upon us if we are to make sense of the reactive attitudes in question.

Consider the analysis of the duty to contribute to aid that contractualist reasoning invites. Though it is not relational in Wallace’s sense, the concern it identifies as lying at the heart of interpersonal morality, that of conducting yourself in ways justifiable to others, can be aptly described as relational in character. The personal interests of individuals do figure in working out what, by way of conduct, is justifiable to them. But that is because many of the reasons they have for objecting to principles licensing certain forms of conduct appeal to their interests. It is relating to others in ways responsive to their reasons, not the promotion and protection of interests, that contractualism takes to be fundamental.

Looked at in this way, not contributing to the aid of those in need is wrong because no principle permitting affluent individuals to not contribute is justifiable, in light of their reasons for wanting assistance, to those in need. Acting wrongly, by not contributing, constitutes a failure to acknowledge, or a denial of, the comparative significance of their reasons, and by implication, their equal moral standing as persons. The gulf this creates between the wrongdoer and those who have good reasons for refusing to license the permissibility of their conduct constitutes a form of interpersonal estrangement.

My sense is that this gulf provides the right kind of warrant for those in need holding the derelict affluent accountable. If I’m right, the point calls into question the extent to which practices of interpersonal accountability actually support Wallace’s relational interpretation. That we do not just register a person’s conduct as being morally wrong, but are disposed, when the wrong concerns how she has related to another, to hold the person accountable for her wrongdoing is perhaps the most intuitively compelling consideration in favor of theorizing morality in relational terms. But it only speaks in favour of morality as a nexus of duties and linked claims if we accept that holding a person accountable for her conduct requires her having wrongedanother by disregarding the person’s claim. The contractualist analysis of the duty to contribute implies this is something we ought not accept. It can be appropriate to hold a person accountable for acting wrongly, though the act wrongs no one, because the grounds of it being wrong to act in that way are relational — in the sense of being concerned, not with the valid claims of others, but with the reasons they have for reasonably refusing to license the type of conduct in question.

In the abstract, this may seem like a small difference. But it makes a significant difference to the prospects of being able to make sense of the content of interpersonal morality in relational terms. Consider, for example, a standard non-identity problem case, in which a person is faced with a choice between conceiving a child now, knowing that there is a non-negligible risk that it will be born with significant physical impairments, and taking a safe, costless drug for six months before conceiving that will vastly reduce the likelihood of impairment. Many share the intuitive conviction that the objection to not taking the drug is relational, having to do with how she would be relating to the future child. Sometimes theorized as a violation of the child’s right, Wallace suggests that we better get at the insight behind the positing of such a right by attention to how the implications of taking the drug for the child’s non-comparative interests underwrite its claim that it be taken (212).

From R. Jay Wallace: 

The Moral Nexus sketches and defends a relational interpretation of the domain of interpersonal morality. The starting point is the idea that there is a distinctively relational form of normativity, illustrated by promissory commitments, that involves three features:


  • First, there are directed duties, owed by an agent to another party (in the promissory case, the promisor owes it to the promisee to live up to the terms of the agreement);
  • Second, there is a claim that is held by the party to whom the obligation is owed, against the agent who stands under the directed duty (cf. the promisee’s claim against the promisor to the latter’s compliance with the promissory commitment);
  • Third, there is the idea that a failure on the part of the agent to live up to the directed duty is not merely wrong, but constitutes a wrong done to the claimholder (thus a promisor who flouts their promissory commitment will thereby have wronged the promisee, in a way they will not necessarily have wronged a disinterested third party to the transaction).


The central idea of the book is that it is open to us to understand interpersonal morality as a relational nexus of this kind, involving duties that are owed to other individuals, and claims held against us by those individuals, just insofar as they and we are each moral persons whose interests matter equally. The book argues that interpreting the moral domain in these terms illuminates central normative features of moral norms that are otherwise deeply puzzling; that an interpretation along these lines can be extended to the totality of our moral relations with other individuals; and that the relational interpretation sheds light on a range of challenging first-order moral issues.


In his thoughtful and probing review of the book, Rahul Kumar takes issue with my relational interpretation of some of these first-order issues. The focus is on duties of rescue and cases that involve the non-identity problem. Rahul agrees that our moral obligations in these cases have relational elements. According to the version of contractualism he favors, our moral obligations reflect a concern for the way in which we relate to individuals who might be affected by the things we do, and he thinks this applies to cases that involve helping the needy or making responsible procreative decisions. But he rejects my suggestion that the duties agents are under in these cases correspond to claims of other individuals against them, or that flouting the obligations could be said to wrong those who are adversely affected by the agent’s actions. The first of the three elements in my relational model thus appears to come apart from the other two in cases of this kind.


This is an interesting suggestion, but I don’t think I’m convinced by Rahul’s defense of it. Start with the case of assisting those in severe need. Rahul and I agree that our obligations in this case are anchored in the interests of the potential beneficiaries of our efforts to provide assistance. Individuals in that position have compelling reasons to reject principles that permit affluent agents to contribute nothing to collective measures to address their basic needs. A refusal to contribute to these efforts is thus a failure to acknowledge the “comparative significance” of the reasons of the potential beneficiaries of our contributions, which impairs our ongoing relations with them. A gulf opens up between us and them as a result of this failure, and this is sufficient to explain their resentment of us for failing to provide assistance. We don’t need to postulate, in addition, that they have a claim against us to our help, or that our flouting of the duty of mutual aid wrongs them.


But it isn’t clear to me why Rahul takes these elements in my relational model to be out of place here. He agrees, after all, that there are individuals (the potential beneficiaries of our assistance) who have compelling objections, on their own behalf, to principles that permit us to contribute nothing. He agrees, as well, that our failure to help impairs our ongoing relationships with those individuals, insofar as it constitutes a failure to acknowledge the equal significance of their personal reasons. My own thought is that when these contentions are plausible, it will equally be plausible to ascribe claims to the individuals who have reasonable objections to principles of non-assistance, and to suppose that flouting the obligations will wrong them in particular. This is the way in which my relational model seems implicit in the structure of contractualist reasoning about what it is permissible to do.


Moreover, unless we suppose these elements to be in place, it becomes obscure why the form of estrangement between the agent and those who might benefit from their contributions provides a basis for moral blame. Friends sometimes grow apart from each other, in ways that involve diminished investment in each other’s interests and projects, but this might warrant mere sadness rather than anything intuitively recognizable as blame. The kind of estrangement that occasions blame is that which wrongs the other party, where wrongs in turn involve the failure to acknowledge the party’s claims to continued involvement in the relationship.


Rahul says that the grounds of an action’s being wrong are relational, insofar as they are concerned “not with the valid claims of others, but with the reasons they have for reasonably refusing to license the type of conduct in question”. I agree that the wrongness of actions is not grounded in the valid claims of others; whatever it is that makes it the case that an action is wrong will also make it the case that some other party or parties has a claim against the agent not to perform it. Furthermore, I agree with Rahul that it is illuminating to think that what grounds both directed obligations and claims are the reasons that individuals have, on their own behalf, for objecting to principles that define the obligations. My thought is just that, whenever the objections of individuals are compelling enough to make it reasonable for them to reject principles of permission, it is natural to think both that the resulting obligations are owed to those individuals, and to suppose that they have claims against the agent to compliance with the obligations.


In the non-identity cases, too, Rahul thinks that our moral obligations have to do with how agents would relate to their prospective children, rather than with the claims that prospective (but not yet actual) individuals might have against them. Once again, however, I find it difficult to understand what is problematic about these relationships without assigning implicit claims to the future persons, or supposing that the failure to take their interests into account amounts to a wronging of them. If one’s relationship to the child who suffers the impairments is problematic, this is presumably because one did not take that child’s non-comparative interest in freedom from the impairments appropriately into account in making one’s procreative decisions. One knew that the child one conceived would likely suffer the impairments, and there was an alternative course of action open to one that would almost certainly have resulted in a child without the impairments. Under these conditions, it seems to me reasonable to conclude that one wronged the child one actually gave birth to, failing to acknowledge the claims that one’s prospective children have to reasonable conditions of life.


Against this, Rahul asks: “how can not taking the drug wrong the child who is then conceived if that child would not have come into existence had it been taken?” My answer is that it wrongs that child in particular by reflecting an insufficient regard for the (non-comparative) interest of the child in a life free of impairment. Of course, the child who is thus wronged might not prefer on balance that their parents had not conceived them, assuming that they find their life with the impairments to be sufficiently rewarding. But in this and other cases, one can be wronged without it being the case that one wishes ex post that the wrongful act should not have occurred. (This is a theme in my previous book, The View from Here.) Furthermore, I think a version of the same question can be put to Rahul: how can not taking the drug result in a problematic relation with the child who is conceived if thatchild would not have come into existence without the action that renders the relationship problematic?


For these reasons, I continue to favor my relational interpretation of the moral obligations that obtain in Rahul’s cases. But I thank him for raising some challenging questions about my view, and look forward to fielding further questions about this or any other aspect of the relational account developed in The Moral Nexus.



17 Replies to “NDPR Forum: R. Jay Wallace, The Moral Nexus

  1. First, I want to thank Jay for pressing me on the main points of contention that I discuss in the review. For the sake of readability, I’ll divide my responses into a few posts.
    1/ I agree with Jay’s contention that a whole swath of first-order normative issues can be usefully conceptualized as involving a directed duty that a particular person owes to another in virtue of the claim she holds against the duty-bearer. What drew me to the examples of the duty to aid and that of procreative obligations is the difficulty of characterizing their normative structure as in some way analogous to a promissory obligation, his paradigm case of a relational obligation.

    The duty to aid struck me as an intuitively compelling example of the point. A member of the comparatively affluent may take seriously her obligation to contribute to the alleviation, and eventual eradication, of poverty in developing nations. But it still seems to me to be forced to characterize the obligation as a directed duty. One reason for saying this is that no particular claimholder presents themselves, in the affluent person’s deliberations about what she is obligated to give, as the person, or persons, to whom the obligation is owed. If anything, the global poor she has an obligation to aid enter into her reasoning as closer to a mass noun than particular individuals.

    The same is true, it seems to me, when we focus on the obligation to aid from the deliberative point of view of the potential recipients. I don’t think any such individual conceives of herself as having a claim against any affluent person that she (or if not her, someone) be aided, or that the affluent, in general, contribute to aid. It strikes me as more plausible to hold that, from that point of view, it is wrong of the affluent not to provide the assistance owed to them, though they are not wronged if they do not.

  2. 2/Assuming for the sake of argument that a warrant to blame requires a claim to have been flouted, I think there is a substantive question here about what the warranted reactive attitudes are of the potential beneficiaries towards the derelict affluent; I’m uncertain that blame is what is appropriate or warranted. Perhaps a better way to characterize their reactive attitudes is as a kind of anger directed towards those who disregard of their plight, or some other similar reactive attitude that does not, at first glance, look to be internally related to the flouting of a claim, but does suggest the communication of a demand that their humanity be recognized?

    Jay’s view may be that there is no such reactive attitude because all reactive attitudes are internally related to the flouting of a claim, whereas I want to say that we can make sense of some reactive attitudes (granting that perhaps blame is not one of them) as a response to interpersonal estrangement brought about by another simply not registering your reasons as having any non-instrumental bearing on their practical deliberations. If this is right, we are left with a disagreement that can only be worked through by looking at range of reactive attitudes, with an eye to the question of whether we need to appeal to the flouting of a claim to make sense of their warrant.

    The duties of aid case, as I see it, is the best one for pressing the question of whether the relational elements that Jay distinguishes stand or fall together. Non-identity cases are trickier; the challenge I pressed in the review is one I feel the force of, but am not sure I am ready to fully endorse. Like others, I have argued in print that we should understand the wrong in non-identity cases as wrongings. In arguing for this view, I’ve tended to emphasize that, from the point of view of the person making the procreative decision, it is plausible to think that what structures the deliberations is an obligation owed to the prospective child, and that what is of concern is not just doing the best one can for the child, but not wronging the child.

  3. 3/The worry is that this position is harder to defend if we focus on the point of view of the child who comes into existence. Say the drug, in the case I described, is not taken. If we hold the child to be wronged, Jay’s view requires that we say that it was her claim, in particular, that was flouted in deciding not to take the drug. But it is reasonable to ask ‘in what sense is it her claim in particular that was flouted?’. The child who, ex hypothesi, exists as wronged would not have come into existence had the claim not been flouted. So it is hard to see how she is to identify with the claim in question as a claim she in particular holds (or held) against the person making the decision about taking the drug. As the same is true of the child who would have been conceived had the drug been taken, we end up in a position of it not being clear that the claim in question can be properly described as the claim of any particular person.

    Jay asks: ‘how can not taking the drug result in a problematic relation with the child who is conceived if that child would not have come into existence without the action that renders the relationship problematic’? I don’t have a straightforward answer to this question. I agree that the relation between the person who decides not to take the drug and the child who is then born is problematic. Is the way in which it is problematic one that is best understood by holding the child to have been wronged, warranting her blame of the parent for not taking the drug? At times, I am drawn to answering in the affirmative. But I worry that the reason this is so is that I implicitly believe that the alternative is to accept the objection to not taking the drug is wholly impersonal, which I do not find at all plausible. This brings me back around to the thought that there is something to be said for the view that not all relational wrongs are not wrongings.

  4. Thanks very much for these further thoughts, Rahul; I’ll address first the case of duties of aid, and then turn to your non-identity case in a separate post.

    First, it is helpful for you to clarify that you don’t think the obligation to provide aid to the severely needy is even directed. I had thought that in characterizing the obligation here in the relational terms of contractualism, you were thinking of it as part of “what we owe to each other”; but it seems that is not the case. It is an obligation, one the flouting of which somehow impairs the agent’s ongoing relation with other people; but on your view it is not an obligation that is owed to the individuals in question. For what it’s worth, this strikes me as an odd pair of claims, since it isn’t clear how flouting an obligation that is not directed to a person necessarily damages or undermines the agent’s relation to the person. But I’ll leave that aside (or perhaps come back to it later).

    Your main point is that it is difficult to identify individual claim holders in the case of mutual aid, since there is no single individual whom the obligation requires one to assist. It is an imperfect duty, or one that allows significant agential discretion about how exactly it is to be fulfilled. From the agent’s point of view, the potential beneficiaries are apt to be thought of as a group rather than a set of individuals to whom duties are specifically owed. And from the standpoint of the potential beneficiaries, it is odd to think that there is anything the agent owes to them in particular.

    These are indeed important features of cases involving imperfect duties, and one objective in chapter 6 of “The Moral Nexus” was to highlight some of the challenges they present to a relational account of the moral, and to propose some ways of thinking about the cases in relational terms. My suggestion is that the individuals in the class of potential beneficiaries are persons who have claims against the affluent agent, not that they in particular should be assisted, but that the agent should do their fair share to support collective efforts to assist people in their position. This is an obligation that is owed to each of the individuals in the very extensive class of potential beneficiaries, though it is a surprising feature of the case that the duty that is owed to them is not a duty to assist them in particular.

    In support of the plausibility of this way of thinking of things, I’d emphasize a point that you seemed sympathetic to in your review, which is that a failure to contribute one’s fair share in these cases reflects a failure to appreciate the reasons that each of the potential beneficiaries has to reject principles for the general regulation of behavior that permit affluent agents to contribute nothing. This is the feature of the case that leads you to say that flouting the duty affects the agent’s relation to the people who could have been helped. But it is also the feature that leads me to think that they have special claims, held against the agent, that the agent should do their fair share. Recognizing them, as moral persons, requires that we appreciate the strength of their interests as potential bases for rejecting principles for regulating our interactions with each other. And when obligations can be traced in these ways to the reasons that some individual or individuals have for accepting or rejecting such principles, it seems plausible to say that the duty is owed to them.

    The real test for this intuition, for me, is in thinking about the case in which the duty is flouted. When a directed duty is disregarded in this way, then the person to whom it is owed should be in a privileged position to complain about what the agent done, through reactions that are characteristic of blame. But that seems a plausible thing to say here, as well. The potential beneficiaries of our charitable contributions have special objections, on their own behalf, to an affluent individual’s failure to contribute their fair share to addressing their basic needs, objections that aren’t shared by other members of the moral community. In a situation with this structure, it seems to me natural to think that they have been wronged by the agent’s failure, and resentment would then be a warranted reaction to the failure on their part.

    In your second comment, you express some doubt that blame really makes sense in this case, though you suggest that there might be other reactive attitudes that are warranted by the agent’s failure to register the significance of the potential beneficiary’s reasons. But I guess I think that blame, at the most fundamental level, is ultimately about the agent’s failure to recognize the interests and reasons of other persons, as considerations that have equal and non-instrumental significance for the agent. If a failure of this kind estranges the agent from some other individual or individuals, it does so by providing those individuals with a privileged grievance about what the agent has done, of the kind that manifests in warranted resentment. If you agree that the agent who fails to help out is estranged from each of the potential beneficiaries of their assistance, then it seems to me you are already thinking about the relation between them in terms that provide warrant for the most natural forms of reactive blame.

    Think of it in terms of the ideal of justification to other persons. It seems you would agree that the wrongful agent in these cases, in virtue of their failure to take the reasons of the potential beneficiaries appropriately into account, is not able to justify their conduct specifically to each of those individuals. But that, it seems to me, is more or less what the potential beneficiary has warrant to resent. By the same token, if the agent contributes their fair share to collective aid efforts, then they could in principle look each of the potential beneficiaries in the eye and give an account of themselves—even if the individual’s needs have not been addressed, on account of failures on the part of others to do their fair share. This, it seems to me, reflects the fruitfulness of the relational framework for thinking about our discretionary duties in situations of this kind.

  5. I’ll be somewhat briefer about your helpful comments concerning the non-identity case. Here, it seems, we are both attracted to the idea that there is a duty that is directed to the future individuals who might come into existence through our procreative decisions. But you worry about the idea that wrongful conduct in this area wrongs the future individuals who are created through our decisions, or flouts claims that they have against us, focusing on the perspective of the child. You ask, of the child who is impaired as a result of the decision of the parent not to take the drug, “in what sense is it her claim in particular that was flouted?” The claims, it seems, threaten to float free from the identity of the individuals to whom they are ascribed, insofar as the existence of the claim holder depends on whether they are flouted.

    This is an interesting suggestion, though I’m not sure I fully understand the worry. In the scenario in which the drug is not taken, I think we can say that the flouted claim is the claim of the actual child, insofar as it is her interest in non-impairment in particular that is the basis of the claim. She is the person who suffers the impairment as a result of the parent’s action, after all, so it seems perfectly natural to say that it is her claim that has been flouted.

    It is true that, had the claim not been flouted, she would not have existed in the first place. Given that this is the case, and given, as well, that she finds her actual life (with the impairment) to be well worth living, she will presumably not prefer on balance that her parent should have acted otherwise. But this does not mean that she does not have an interest in freedom from impairment, an interest that her parent did not take adequately into account before she was born in making the decision to procreate without taking the drug.

    At that time, of course, there was no existing individual to whom the claim could be ascribed. One might well wonder, from the perspective of the agent, how a concern to honor the claims of other individuals could guide their deliberations, if the individual claimholders do not yet exist. The answer, I think, is that the agent needs to identify the claimholders by description, as the individuals who would come into existence as a result of the different options that it is open to them to pursue. So the agent knows in advance that if they fail to take the drug, the child who results will suffer a non-comparative harm, of a kind that provides a basis for objecting to their existence with the impairment; whereas the individual who will be conceived if they take the drug will not have a comparable objection.

    Under these conditions, it seems to me the agent knows enough to be able to think that it is wrong to procreate without taking the drug, because it would wrong the person to whom the agent would thereby give birth; and that it would wrong that child by failing to appreciate the significance of its interest in freedom from the impairment. In assigning a claim to that individual child, a claim that is flouted through the act that brings the child into being in the first place, we are registering the fact that it is the interests of the child that fundamentally explain the wrongfulness of the procreative decision.

  6. Thank you, Jay, for such an original and illuminating book. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from it. Thank you also, Rahul, for your insightful review, and thank you Sukaina for organizing this discussion.

    I have many good things to say about the book, but I think it will be more useful to use this forum to ask a clarificatory question. My question has to do with Jay’s idea of a (relational) claim. Since Jay believes that claims are grounded in, but do not reduce to, non-normative interests, there is an important question of how we move from interests to claims. The answer to this question leads to one of Jay’s main theses in the book. His thesis is that contractualism, in the form developed by Thomas Scanlon, “can be understood to describe a kind of schema for effecting [that] transition” (The Moral Nexus, 180). My question is whether an appeal to Scanlon’s contractualism is in fact sufficient to explain how that transition is effected.

    Suppose that an individual A has a claim against another individual B that B performs action X. One of Jay’s central points is that A’s claim is grounded on the reasons that anyone would have, if placed in A’s position, to reject principles of obligation that permitted B to not do X in such circumstances. These are “generic reasons” in Scanlon’s sense. (This is not, of course, the whole story of how in Jay’s view we can move, on the basis of contractualist reasoning, from interests and associated reasons to claims; but it suffices for our purposes here.)

    Now, there is another idea often associated with the concept of a claim that seems to raise a concern about Jay’s thesis. That is the idea of special standing, roughly, that A’s having a claim against B that B does X entails A’s having a special standing with respect to B’s action X –a standing that uninvolved third parties do not have. Suppose that B promises A that B will do X and that A acquires as a result a claim against (and thus a special standing with respect to) B’s promised action, X. Here we can say, following Scanlon, that A has reasons to object to any principle B might invoke to justify B’s not doing X in the circumstances. Now suppose, in addition, that C is an uninvolved third party to that promissory transaction. It seems to me that Scanlon’s contractualism licenses us to say that C might be potentially affected by the kind of behavior exhibited by B and that C has as such –that is, as a potential promisee—reasons to object to principles that permit promisors to disregard the promises they have given to others. But here we appear to find a problem. Since each of A and C has reasons to object to such principles, it is not clear how an appeal to Scanlon’s contractualism (and in particular to his idea of a generic reason) can be sufficient to explain why A, but not C, has a claim and thus a special standing with respect to B’s action X. (It is not clear to me that Scanlon’s ideas of generic reason, reasonable rejection, and justification to others are jointly sufficient to distinguish A’s standing from C’s, either.)

    Jay considers a related concern in the book. As he states: “There is, strictly speaking, a gap between the interests that figure in contractualist reasoning and the concrete interests of individuals who have actual moral claims. Contractualist reasoning, about principles for the general regulation of behavior, is somewhat idealized, and it considers the personal interests associated with representative positions or roles that individuals might occupy under the normative regimes that are up for assessment (such as the position of recipient of a promissory commitment, or addressee of a lie). Cf. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other, chap. 5, sec. 4, on “generic” reasons for objecting to principles. The actual moral claimholder, in real life, will be an individual who occupies such a position or role in fact. Such individuals will, in virtue of occupying these roles, have personal interests that ground reasonable objections to principles that permit agents, e.g., to break promises made to the claimholders, or to address to them claims known to be false” (p. 262, n. 46).

    I take it that a task for an explanation of how the transition from interests to claims is effected is to identify who the claim-holder actually is (and thus who has the associated special standing). And it seems to me that, for the reasons adduced above, this identification does not follow solely from an appeal to contractualist reasoning. I agree with mostly everything Jay says in the aforementioned paragraph. In particular, I agree with Jay that we can say, in a sense, that the “actual moral claimholder, in real life, will be an individual who occupies [a certain] position or role in fact [and thus who has certain] interests that ground reasonable objections to principles that permit agents, e.g., to break promises made to the claimholders.” But this looks to me like reading Scanlon’s contractualism from the perspective of the relational approach to moral obligations and claims, rather than deriving the latter from the former. To be clear, I think that it is an extremely fruitful strategy to draw a connection between Scanlon’s contractualism and the relational approach. This is, I take it, one of the many great insights of the book. But it is not obvious to me that the latter follows directly and solely from the former.

    In closing, I want to reiterate that I find the book extremely illuminating and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the nature of moral obligation and morality in general.

  7. Thanks for an excellent discussion!

    Jay: In your response to Rahul’s question about cases involving the non-identity problem, you appeal to the importance of non-comparative harms, suggesting that “In assigning a claim to that individual child, a claim that is flouted through the act that brings the child into being in the first place, we are registering the fact that it is the interests of the child that fundamentally explain the wrongfulness of the procreative decision”. Is it therefore an implication of your view that, in a revised version of Rahul’s case in which there were *no* drug available, the parent would still wrong her child by bringing him into existence with an impairment, even though she lacks the option to bring into existence another child without any such impairment? In other words, is it right that, since you’re concerned with the non-comparative harm suffered by the child with the impairment, the availability of a drug that would greatly reduce the risk of impairment is neither here nor there when it comes to assessing the parent’s conduct?

  8. First of all, thanks for the great discussion so far!

    I would like to better understand what’s at issue between Jay and Rahul with respect to, for example, the interpretation of the duty of beneficence. Both of you agree that contractualism yields duties of mutual aid: principles that no one could reasonably reject will require the affluent to use their resources to contribute to the alleviation of global poverty, preventable disease, and so on. And both of you agree that, in view of this, a failure on the part of the affluent to contribute constitutes a failure to relate to those in need in a way that recognizes their equal moral standing—and that this amounts to a kind of estrangement from our fellow human beings we have good reason to want to avoid. Moreover, both of you seem to accept that this failure of recognition makes it appropriate for those in need to hold the indifferent affluent accountable for their indifference. Rahul, however, seems to think that (a) more would need to be said to establish that such a duty of mutual aid is a directed duty, with correlative claims, on the part of potential beneficiaries, to assistance from the more affluent; and (b) that this further step is not plausible.

    What I’m not entirely clear on is whether Jay’s response is better understood as directed against (a) or (b). His reply above suggests that he might think that showing that a requirement can be established by the contractualist procedure, thereby reveals it to be a directed duty, owed to others who have a claim to its observance—hence, that he’s denying (a). Contractualist reasoning just is reasoning about what we owe to each other. This might be because what the idea of wronging another person comes to is the idea of acting in a way that fails to acknowledge their equal moral standing, a failure that makes blame an appropriate response. A worry, however, is that, on this interpretation, the dispute begins to look more or less terminological. There’s no substantive disagreement about whether indifference to those in need constitutes a failure of recognition, for which one may be held accountable. The issue is just whether we want to say that this provides a sense in which one wrongs those in need, or whether we want to reserve that phrase for something more specific.

    My guess, though, is that there is something more substantive at issue. This is because it seems clear that on Jay’s account there is more to the idea of a directed duty than the idea of a duty whose violation would constitute a failure of mutual recognition, and for which one may thus be held accountable. In particular, (and as Rahul nicely lays out in his review) relational duties are supposed to, first of all, function as deliberative presumptions, in the sense that they exclude consideration of (many) competing interests and concerns, rather than just being balanced against such competing concerns in determining what one ought to do. And second, relational duties are agent-relative. It seems to me that more really does have to be said to show that a duty of mutual aid established on the basis of contractualist reasoning will have these additional features.

    For one thing, if Rahul is right, and a principle of mutual aid that no one could reasonably reject will leave considerable discretion to agents to determine for themselves how to fulfill it, this will be hard to square with the thought that it will yield a deliberative presumption in favor of using one’s resources to help alleviate global poverty. On the face of it, it seems more likely that such a principle will simply direct agents to take account of the needs of the global poor and weigh opportunities to provide assistance against other values in determining how to make use of their time and resources. For another thing, it’s not clear that the duty of beneficence is agent-relative in the way that, say, promissory obligations are. If, for example, rather than directly contributing resources to the alleviation of poverty, I can use my resources in ways that will effectively get others to stop ignoring their obligations to help those in need, this seems just as good from the standpoint of beneficence. So, that’s some support for Rahul’s thought that the duty of mutual aid is part of a broadly relational conception of morality, in that it is partly grounded in the value of the mutual recognition that its fulfillment makes possible, without itself being a full blown relational duty, entailing correlative claims to aid held by the potential beneficiaries of that aid.

    Anyway, thank you, Jay, for such a great book. And thanks, Rahul, for the illuminating review and discussion.

  9. Thanks, Jay, Steve, Tom, and Facundo, for these further comments. This is a very stimulating discussion!

    What I continue to stumble over in your analysis of the non-identity case, Jay, is clearly stated in the third short paragraph of your comment on this issue. There you say that though the child is born wronged, she does not regret her life, so does not prefer that on balance her parents would have acted otherwise. That is completely plausible. But then you go on to say “but this does not mean that she does not have an interest in freedom from impairment, an interest that her parent did not adequately take into account before she was born in making the decision to procreate without taking the drug.” I have doubts about this second part. Can’t the parent say to her child “I did fully take your interest in existing free of impairment fully into account. But I judged the interest to be defeated by the fact that you would not exist if I took the drug, and I knew you would have a good enough life that you would not regret having been brought into existence”? I take it you want to say that reasoning this way is blocked by the child’s claim against her parent. But if that is right, Tom’s question strikes me as forceful: do you want to say that a child is wronged by being knowingly brought into existence in a non-comparatively harmed state, whether or not there was an option to bring a child into existence who is free of the impairment? I assume Tom means to imply that this is implausible. If an impaired child is the only child you can have, you do no wrong, and do not wrong her, in bringing her into existence.

    Facundo, you are certainly right that what Jay offers is a reading of contractualism from the perspective of the relational approach rather than deriving the approach from contractualism. But Jay is explicit about this. He is bolstering contractualism by making explicit and developing the relational elements that that account appeals to, but that Scanlon doesn’t seem make much of. Part of what I very much appreciate about Jay’s book is that he is tackling head on the question of what the role is of these relational elements of the contractualist approach. Discussions of contractualism have tended to allude to the issue without explicitly addressing it.

    Steve, your distinguishing (a) and (b) is super useful. I’d worried when writing the review that what I was suggesting might end up sounding merely terminological. What you say clarifies exactly why that is not so. Were I to re-write the review, I would be more careful in how I appeal to fairness with respect to the duty of beneficence. Jay’s comment has made me see that I did so in a way that suggests something other than what I had in mind. What I was thinking of when I mentioned fairness was Liam Murphy’s account of the fair allocation of the demands of beneficence. As I understand his account, there is a directed duty to do your fair share, but it is owed to the others with whom you are involved in the collective project of addressing poverty. As I see it, they are the ones who are in a privileged position to blame the non-compliers, not the potential beneficiaries. But this still leaves it open to argue, on Jay’s terms, that those in need have claims on each of the affluent to join with others in undertaking a collective project of poverty relief, with each then contributing her fair share of resources/effort to advancing the project’s aim.

  10. Thanks everyone for a stimulating discussion so far!

    I take it one of the points of contention between Jay and Rahul is whether the following is true:

    X has a claim against Y that Y Φ-es if X can reasonably reject any principles that licenses Y in not Φ-ing.

    Rahul thinks the above is false. In support, Rahul writes that though the global poor could reasonably reject any principle that licenses the affluent to stand by and do nothing, “no particular claimholder presents themselves, in the affluent person’s deliberations about what she is obligated to give, as the person, or persons, to whom the obligation is owed.”

    I want to make two points on Jay’s behalf.

    First, consider a small-scale analogue. Five of us are drowning in a lake. Amber is skilled at water rescue, and she can wade into the lake at negligible cost to herself. But she is only able to drag one of us to the shore in time. Amber, however, stands by and does nothing.

    It seems to me that, in this case, we each have a claim against Amber that she attempts a rescue, rather than standing idly by. This is true even though none of us can truthfully say “I have a claim against Amber that she rescues me in particular.” There is of course a disanalogy between this case and helping the global poor, which is that Amber’s duty is perfect rather than imperfect. However, the larger point I want to make, that X can hold a claim against Y that Y offers help, even though Y need not help X in particular, seems to stand.

    Second, I want to point out that our duty to help the global poor is, in a sense, doubly imperfect. There is room for discretion with respect to whether to offer help on this or that occasion. But moreover, there is room for discretion with respect to the form of help we are called upon to offer. One can fulfill one’s obligation to the global poor by giving directly, or by raising general awareness of their plight, or by working to change governmental policies concerning international aid, or…

    This is all to say, as a response to Steve, that the content of the claim held against us by the global poor has a degree of indeterminacy. This indeterminacy, however, does not undermine, as far as I can see, Jay’s claim that each of the global poor has a claim against us to offer help, nor does it take away the agent-relative character of these claims.

    Finally, with respect to the non-identity problem, I just want to say that, as I understand it, Jay’s ambition in Chapter 6 of his book is not so much to solve a slew of first-order issues that he discusses, but to show that a relational framework is not obviously hopeless in the light of these issues. Jay himself seems to favor the non-comparative harm approach to the nonidentity problem. I agree with Tom that this approach runs into trouble in the scenario he discusses. But I suppose the best strategy, for someone like Jay, is to wait and see if non-comparative theorists can give a satisfactory reply in due time. Or perhaps he will write another book on the nonidentity problem!

    In any case, thanks for a great discussion everyone!

  11. And I also have a question for Jay! The approach you favor carves out the domain of interpersonal morality from the broader domain of practical normatively, and it interprets interpersonal morality to have a relational structure. Can you say more about how the relational and non-relational interact? In particular, in determining what individuals owe to each other, in what way, if at all, do non-relational values enter into the picture?

    When you discuss promissory obligations, you explicit mention that emergencies and exceptional circumstances can render one’s obligation of promise-keeping moot. This is easier to understand, under the relational framework, if the kind of emergencies implicates the interest of some third person (my daughter unexpectedly falls ill, so I can no longer attend the dinner party I promised to attend). But what if it is some non-relational value that is at stake: I promised you that I will attend the dinner party, but unexpectedly the Grand Canyon needs my saving. Setting aside the personal reasons we have to admire the Grand Canyon, can the impersonal value of the Grand Canyon itself vacate my obligation of promise-keeping in this case? Can you resent me for failing to show up to your party?

  12. Thanks to all of you for these extremely thoughtful and illuminating contributions to the discussion, which I have profited greatly from. Here are a few quick thoughts about some of the issues you have raised:

    Facundo, I agree with Rahul’s point that I wasn’t exactly trying to derive the relational interpretation of my book from Scanlon’s contractualism, but interpreting contractualism from the perspective of the relational interpretation. The idea is that, at least on natural interpretations of Scanlon’s account, there are relational elements that are implicit in the structure of contractualist reasoning, so that we can understand contractualism to describe a general method for deriving claims from the personal interests of individuals variously affected by what an agent does.

    Of course, if this is going to work, then it had better be the case that we have some way to distinguish between A and C in your example (where A is the promisee, and C the uninvolved third-party), since it is clear that it is A but not C who has a claim against B to promissory fidelity. What I’d say about this interesting challenge is the following: the generic reasons that are dispositive in thinking about whether it is permissible for promisors to break their promissory commitments are reasons that go together with being in the position of the promisee. On this particular occasion, it is A rather than C who actually occupies that position. So we can say that it is A who has the claim against B to promissory fidelity, even if it is also the case that C will have similar claims on other occasions, when they occupy the position of promisee.

    It is true that there is an empirical step in the reasoning just described that goes beyond the contractualist consideration of generic reasons, which is the step of identifying the individual who is in the position of the promisee, and who therefore actually has a reasonable ground for objecting to B’s defecting from the promissory commitment. This is a step that needs to be completed if we are to use contractualist reasoning to effect the transition from identifying the interests of actual individuals to assigning moral claims specifically to them. But I take this to be a natural way to think about the application of contractualist reasoning to a particular decision context, and one that is implicit in Scanlon’s own approach. (After all, even B, the promisor, needs to be able to ascertain that they occupy that position on this occasion to know that they are the party who is under an obligation of promissory fidelity.)

    Tom’s question is also a great one, about whether it makes a difference to the permissibility or impermissibility of conceiving a child who suffers an impairment, whether the agent had the option of conceiving a child without the impairment. In Rahul’s case, there was such an option: all the prospective parent needed to do was to take the drug and wait a little while. But as Tom notes, the child who is conceived with an impairment will suffer the same non-comparative harm, whether or not their parent had the option of conceiving a non-impaired child. So the approach I favor threatens to run the two cases together, in ways that seem potentially counterintuitive.

    I’m grateful to Erik for giving me the option of punting on this issue, and waiting for other non-comparative harm theorists to take up Tom’s challenge on behalf of a relational approach. That might in fact be the wise course of action! But I want to make a couple of points now in response to Tom’s challenge, just to flesh out a bit the way I am thinking about the issues it raises.

    One thing that seems to me very important, if one is considering these non-identity cases in contractualist terms, is that there is an element of comparison built into moral reasoning about them. The generic reasons for rejection that are relevant, when thinking about Rahul’s original case, are the reasons that the prospective child will have for not wanting to suffer the non-comparative impairment. But whether it is reasonable for the person who has those interests to reject principles permitting their conception will depend on the question of how those reasons compare in force to the reasons that different individuals would have for rejecting the relevant alternative principles. My thought about Rahul’s original case is that it is reasonable to reject principles permitting the agent to conceive without the drug, because the child who would be conceived under those principles has a strong objection to living with the impairment (insofar as it amounts to a non-comparative harm), and there is no individual with a comparable objection who would be conceived under principles that require the agent to take the drug before conceiving.

    This is a relevant difference, it seems to me, between Rahul’s case and Tom’s variant of it. In the latter, each child that the prospective parent might conceive would suffer the same non-comparative harm. Under these conditions, it is not reasonable for a given child to insist that their parent should have conceived someone else, since any child who might be conceived would suffer a non-comparative harm of the very same kind. It is a basic tenet of contractualist reasoning, after all, that it is not reasonable to reject a principle permitting a given form of behavior if there are other individuals with generic objections of the very same kind and strength to the relevant alternatives.

    It doesn’t follow from this that it would be permissible to conceive the child who suffers the non-comparative harm in Tom’s case, only that there isn’t the same moral objection to doing so that there is in Rahul’s original case. A complete discussion of Tom’s case would need to consider other options that are open to the agent in it, including the option of not conceiving a child at all. Some theorists of non-comparative harm famously think that the harms endemic to human existence are sufficient to make it the case that the decision to procreate is always morally fraught. The individuals who suffer the non-comparative harms of human existence did not have the opportunity to consent to them. And there is an alternative to procreation, namely remaining childless, under which no individuals have similar objections to the agent’s behavior. I don’t find this position plausible, myself, but I feel the objections to conception become much more weighty when any child a prospective parent might conceive will suffer a serious impairment, one that goes well beyond the mere slings and arrows that are built into living a human life. To assess whether these considerations are sufficient to make it wrong for the prospective parent to conceive, we need to weigh them against the objections that the parent has, on their own behalf, to being forced to remain without natural progeny. I don’t wish to decide that question here, but it seems to me the comparative question that needs to be resolved before we can figure out whether procreation is really permissible in Tom’s case (or alternatively, whether the children that would be conceived in that scenario have claims that would be flouted through their conception).

    In discussing this issue in his latest comment, Rahul raises another excellent question. Given that the child who would be conceived with the impairment will find their life worth living, such that they do not regret having been created, can’t the parent appeal to that in justifying to the child their decision not to take the drug before conceiving? This is a natural question. But I don’t think it really delineates a compelling justification for the decision that could be offered specifically to the child. There is, I believe, an ex ante condition that is built into the contractualist strategy for justifying actions. This is that the justification should appeal only to considerations that were available to the agent at the time when the action was performed. But at that time, the child in question did not yet exist, and so their attitude of affirmation of their life is not available to figure in the justification of the parent’s decision about whether to take the drug or not.

    In procreative contexts of this kind, we might think of objections to candidate principles as being advanced by trustees on behalf of the children who will be brought into existence under those principles. In Rahul’s original case, there are two prospective children whose interests the trustees need to take into account, both of whom will (by hypothesis) affirm their lives, but only one of whom will suffer a significant impairment. A trustee for either child might appeal to its anticipated satisfaction with its own life as a basis for rejecting principles permitting that they should not be conceived. But these objections will be precisely symmetrical, and so give neither trustee a reasonable basis for insisting that their child in particular should be conceived. Considerations of prospective satisfaction of this kind are thus not dispositive in ex ante reasoning about what it is permissible for the agent to do in Rahul’s original case.

    It is now getting late here in California, and I haven’t yet gotten to Steve’s extremely helpful remarks about beneficence. So I won’t have time now to write as much as would need to be written to respond to all of the issues he raises. But it helps that Erik has already offered a lucid statement of some of the points I would want to make about these cases. Mutual aid is a part of morality that initially seems hard to squeeze into a relational framework, and one thing I was trying to do was just sketch the outline of a relational interpretation of these duties, something that has been neglected in other work I am aware of. Like Erik, it seems to me at least coherent to think that potential beneficiaries might have claims against us that we should do our fair share to support collective efforts to assist them, where each of us has considerable discretion about which particular contributions we will make.

    The directed obligations that correspond to these claims, it seems to me, can function as presumptive constraints on agency, in the way I take to be characteristic of moral obligations. The constraint is to shape one’s plans in such a way that one is doing one’s part to contribute to the collective efforts on behalf of the global needy. There are many ways to meet this constraint, which is what distinguishes the discretionary duty here from other duties that are more determinate in their content. But it still is a real constraint, ruling many ways of shaping one’s agency out of bounds.

    I have also tended to agree with Erik that duties of this kind are plausibly agent-relative character. But Steve’s comments now give me pause. Suppose you are in a situation in which, by failing to do your fair share, you would thereby bring it about that five other agents (who would otherwise do nothing) contribute their fair share. This is a classic “paradox of deontology” scenario, and a minimal hallmark of agent-relative duties is that they remain in force even in cases of this kind (where flouting them would lead other agents to fulfill duties of the same kind). My initial inclination is to say that failing to contribute in this scenario would not count as honoring the claims that the potential beneficiaries have against you, and so the duty that is on you to do your far share still obtains.

    But I now imagine Steve replying that there are certain potential beneficiaries who will be better off if I fail to do my part in this case. Can it really be plausible to think that I wrong them by so acting, given that my doing so improves their prospects (or perhaps even saves their lives)? I’m not sure what to say about this. One possibility would be to bite the bullet, following my treatment of the non-identity case discussed earlier, and observe that there are many cases in which agents are wronged by actions that leave them better off on balance than they otherwise would have been. Another option might be to say that, in this very peculiar kind of partial compliance situation, I would be doing my fair sharing precisely by shirking, which under the causal circumstances can be considered a positive contribution to the better functioning of the collective efforts at global assistance. I’ll have to think about this some more.

    A final point picks up on Rahul’s observation about fair share duties. I agree completely that duties to contribute one’s fair share are owed, in part, to the other individuals who are doing their part to support the beneficial collective efforts. That is, those individuals could reasonably reject principles permitting other similarly situated persons to do nothing. But I believe that relational obligations can be directed to two different parties (or classes of parties) at the same time. When the benefit to be achieved through the collective efforts is meeting the basic needs of the destitute, then the potential beneficiaries of the collective efforts also have reasonable objections to principles permitting us to do nothing. Our failure to contribute will wrong both them, and the other affluent individuals who are already doing their part, flouting claims that individuals in both positions have against us to do our fair share (albeit claims that are grounded in different personal interests in the two cases).

    Okay, I think I’m going to go to bed now. Thanks to all of you for the super interesting feedback and questions, and for taking the trouble to engage during this troubling and very distracting summer.

  13. I think Erik posted his question as I was composing my response to various comments late last night, so I overlooked it at the time. But it raises a really interesting issue about how non-relational interests and values enter into the reasoning that determines the relational claims we have against each other.

    I think it is in general the case that the personal interests that provide potential bases for objecting to relational principles of permission or requirement include interests with a non-relational character. (I am at this point sticking to my relational interpretation of contractualism, if only because doing so simplifies discussion of the issues somewhat.) Thus, as we saw above in discussing Tom’s procreation case, a prospective parent’s personal interest in having natural children seems at least a candidate basis for rejecting principles that preclude their conceiving children with the postulated impairment. Similarly, an affluent person’s personal interest in living their own life and pursuing their own projects is at least relevant to reflection about whether—as Peter Singer and others maintain—they are obligated to contribute more than their fair share to the collective project of assisting the truly needy.

    You are absolutely right that the examples I offered in the book of the kind of unanticipated changes in circumstance that can undermine a promissory obligation involved emergency situations in which the interests of other parties are at stake (your mother has a stroke and needs to be driven to the hospital, for instance). But I think there are also non-relational emergencies that could equally make it the case that a promissory commitment is no longer strictly in force. Depending on the nature of the promise, the interest of the promisee in reliance about the matter at hand, and so on, it might be perfectly okay to break a promise if e.g. an important opportunity comes up, which couldn’t have been anticipated in advance, to further some important personal project of the promisor’s. Gilbert Harman used to say that it would be all right to break a promise to your kid in order to take advantage of a sudden opportunity to make some money on the stock market. I’m not sure about that, myself. But if the sudden opportunity is e.g. to interview some prominent figure you are writing about in your current book project, or to meet an important person who is uniquely well-position to help you advance significantly in your career ambitions, things might look different.

    The background idea here, which I learned from Scanlon, is that principles of promissory fidelity should take some account of the ways in which circumstances that matter to the agent can change unexpectedly. We all have an interest in being able to create new obligations through voluntary commitments of this kind. But promisors have an important interest in being able to integrate their voluntary obligations with the rest of their normative commitments and undertakings. It is reasonable for them to reject principles of fidelity that bind them absolutely to their promissory commitments; and it would equally be unreasonable for promisees to insist on principles of absolute fidelity, given that it is common knowledge that circumstances can change unexpectedly, in ways that might significantly affect the important personal interests of the promisor (or their ability to fulfill other relational obligations that they are under).

    What about an unexpected opportunity to save the Grand Canyon? I guess I think this is the sort of thing that could get a promisor off the promissory hook (so to speak), at least most of the time. Furthermore, that it can do so seems to me not to depend on whether the promisor in question has it as one of their projects to promote natural beauty, or even cares very much themselves about the Grand Canyon. So how to explain this exception to the promissory commitment, in cases in which personal interests of this kind on the part of the promisor are not at stake?

    I don’t think I can appeal to an interest on the part of the promisor in being able to respond to unexpected opportunities to advance impersonal values. At least I can’t do that, consistently with my contention that the individualist restriction needs to be retained within contractualism if it is to cohere with the relational interpretation of morality I favor (see sec. 5.4 of *The Moral Nexus*). But a natural thing to say here is that there is an important competing relational obligation in play, owed to other individuals, to preserve an important part of our natural heritage that they will want opportunities to engage with. You owe it to others to make it possible for them to appreciate and interact with this natural wonder. If it suddenly and unexpectedly emerges that you are uniquely positioned to save the Grand Canyon, though only by doing something that breaks a promise to a friend, then it is probably okay to for you to do so for these relational reasons. (And I think your friend would probably understand, when you explain yourself to them afterwards!)

  14. Thank you all for the great discussion.

    Jay and Rahul: thanks for the clarifying comments. I should note that what I hastily said in the last couple of sentences of my prior post was imprecise. My concern was directed not at the question of whether the whole of the relational view follows directly and solely from contractualism, but at the more specific question of whether an appeal to the latter view is sufficient to effect the transition from interest to relational claims. I fully agree with Rahul’s comments about the immense theoretical value of interpreting contractualism from the relational perspective and am in fact very sympathetic to the latter view.

    The more specific question is tackled by Jay in his response. This is very helpful since I think I now see more clearly where my concern (and, perhaps, confusion) specifically resided. Jay reasons as follows: “(1) the generic reasons that are dispositive in thinking about whether it is permissible for promisors to break their promissory commitments are reasons that go together with being in the position of the promisee. (2) On this particular occasion, it is A rather than C who actually occupies that position. (3) So we can say that it is A who has the claim against B to promissory fidelity, even if it is also the case that C will have similar claims on other occasions, when they occupy the position of promisee.” My concern was, I think, whether we can move from (1) (or something akin to it) and (2) to (3).

    My concern emerged partly from my interpretation of Scanlon’s contractualism. This is what I thought about it in relation to the example I offered. It is true, as Jay notes, that generic reasons “go together with being in the position of the promisee.” But I understood this in the following way. Such reasons go together with the (generic) position of being a promisee, not only with the position of being the actual promisee in the case at hand. In other words, such generic reasons are possessed by all potential promisees, independently of whether they occupy that position in the particular case or not. A potential promisee does not acquire those reasons when and only when they are given a promise. They had such reasons all along, so to speak. By parity of reasoning, any potential promisee has, in the case at hand, reasonable grounds for objecting to B’s defection and to the principles that permit it.

    Jay adds in his response: “It is true that there is an empirical step in the reasoning just described that goes beyond the contractualist consideration of generic reasons, which is the step of identifying the individual who is in the position of the promisee, and who therefore actually has a reasonable ground for objecting to B’s defecting from the promissory commitment.”

    This additional comment is revealing in helping to locate my concern. I agree that such an empirical step allows us both to identify A as the actual promisee in the case at hand and to see that A has reasonable grounds for objecting to B’s defection. But I thought that in order to be able to separate out A’s standing from C’s, we had to establish the further point that potential promisees, such as C, lack those very same grounds for objecting to B in that situation. And I worried that this point could not be established by taking that empirical step. Indeed, given my interpretation of contractualism above, I thought that this form of reasoning licenses instead the conclusion that in that situation C does have, as potential promisee, the cited grounds for objecting to B. Such are the considerations that motivated the concern that additional resources are needed to secure the transition from interests/reasons to relational claims.

    Since a lot hinges on it, I realize I need to revisit Scanlon’s discussion of generic reasons. Again, thank you, Jay and Rahul, for the clarifying comments.

  15. Thanks for this further comment, Facundo, which is very helpful for me in understanding the concern you are pressing. You write, about the generic reasons at issue in Scanlon-style contractualism:

    “Such reasons go together with the (generic) position of being a promisee, not only with the position of being the actual promisee in the case at hand. In other words, such generic reasons are possessed by all potential promisees, independently of whether they occupy that position in the particular case or not. A potential promisee does not acquire those reasons when and only when they are given a promise. They had such reasons all along, so to speak. By parity of reasoning, any potential promisee has, in the case at hand, reasonable grounds for objecting to B’s defection and to the principles that permit it.”

    I think the crux of the disagreement between is the interpretation of what a generic reason is. In this particular passage, you seem to suggest that it is a reason that is possessed “by all potential promisees, independently of whether they occupy that position in the particular case or not”. I think of the generic reasons, by contrast, as reasons that anybody would have when they occupy the position of the promisee (so, precisely not “independently of whether they occupy that position”). They are generic, insofar as they are reasons that any representative person in the relevant position would have for rejecting principles of permission or requirement; not insofar as they are reasons that anyone has, independently of whether they are in the role of recipient of promissory assurance.

    Thus, in the promising case, people in the position of the promisee have generic reasons for wanting assurance that the promisor will live up to the promissory undertaking. These are among the things that anyone in this position generically has cause to care about on their own behalf, and they provide strong grounds for rejecting principles that permit promisors to defect without compelling reason. With this understanding of generic reasons in place, we have materials in hand to distinguish A and C in your example. A is the one who is in the position of the promisee in this case, and so it is A who has a compelling objection, on their own behalf, to principles that allow B to defect from the promise. C does not have the same kind of objection to B’s defecting, here and now, because they don’t occupy the position in this scenario that is associated with the relevant (generic) reasons for rejection.

    It is entirely possible that I’m missing something, but this seems to me the most natural way to understand the Scanlon-style talk of generic reasons for rejection—in part because it gives us the most straightforward way to identify specific claimholders in situations like the one you describe.

    But many thanks for the additional remarks, which are very interesting, and which I’ll need to think about some more.

  16. Not sure how this works, but I need to head out for a walk now before dinner, and won’t be available this evening. So let me take the opportunity to thank Rahul for his gracious and interesting review of my book; to Sukaina for suggesting that we do a Pea Soup Forum based on the review; and to Rahul, Facundo, Tom, Steve, and Erik for the stimulating and very probing comments and questions, from which I’ve learned a lot.

    I wish I could get together with you in person (e.g. in a beer garden in Berlin) for relaxed discussion and conversation under more ordinary social conditions. But this was a very nice substitute during a time when we are all hunkered down at home, trying to ignore the bad news. Take care everyone, and thanks again for your interest in my book.

  17. Thank you for your detailed response, Jay. Your remarks clarify the issues for me and allow me to see what I was missing about the idea of a generic reason.

    I hope everyone enjoys the rest of the summer as best they can.

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